Watching the grass grow—a pandemic spring at home

A lot has happened since I last wrote a blog entry. I haven’t really had time to indulge in the pleasure of writing for a couple of months. In a nutshell, a pandemic viral outbreak has happened, of course, and I—like so many people around the world—have retreated as much as I can into my own home to help slow the spread of a respiratory virus that is mild for most, deadly for some, and potentially capable of overwhelming our healthcare systems.

It’s already been overwhelming for most people. Jobs have been moved off-site, or launched willingly or not into the front lines of infection, or lost altogether. I have been fortunate to move my work to my home. But suddenly converting half a semester of lab-based college biology course to a virtual experience has left us all feeling stressed and a bit hollow at times. I’m also helping others cope with their own online transitions, plus lost opportunities and interpersonal interaction. This is the fallout of the “social distancing” protocols that create more physical space among us, but leave us craving interactions with other people and educational systems somewhere other than on a computer screen or in the confines of our homes. Online, I have found my discussions of science expanding to now daily conversations with family, friends, and my broader online network, which is important, but can sometimes occupy more hours than are probably truly necessary.

And so, I remind myself to notice that spring is here! One saving grace has been a change in the weather, leading us from the darkest, coldest days of the year in my part of the world and into more warmth and longer daylight hours. I make sure to take the dog on a long walk every day, or ride my bike, and enjoy the spring blooms. I always enjoy watching nature wake up from winter, with its clever timing based on sunlight and temperatures. (I wrote about this phenomenon, known scientifically as “phenology,” last spring.) This year is no exception.

I’ve found myself watching the grass grow day by day, as I emerge when I can and feel the sun on my face. I feel like I’ve had a lot of time to watch the grass grow, sitting at home now for over a month. As a biologist, I have a complicated relationship with grass—the blend of fine fescues and hardy bluegrass that shape my urban landscape:

A patch of my front yard, busily photosynthesizing in the early spring sunshine. My own photo ©Erin Gerecke

First, some happy thoughts about grass.

  • I love the first greening up of all the grass in spring, the burst of chlorophyll production that almost hurts your eyes on a sunny day, after a winter of grays, browns, and whites. It’s an early reminder that spring is truly on its way.
  • When I was a child, running through the grass in my yard and elsewhere was a pleasure in and of itself. And when it was warm enough to go barefoot, the sensory connection with nature was the feeling of freedom and happiness. I also enjoyed the abundance of dandelion weeds in a vacant lot in my neighborhood—their cheerful yellow flowers followed by a puff of seeds that we blew happily into the wind, even when the adults told us not too.
  • Green grass in spring symbolizes renewal, in line with spring holidays in many religious traditions. As a child, I loved hunting for Easter eggs in the grass when the weather accommodated this adventure, and finding the last wrapped chocolates in a basket lined with artificial grass.
  • Spreading a picnic blanket, playing a ball game or throwing a Frisbee, running through a sprinkler or swinging on a swing, walking through a park, watching an outdoor concert, camping…so many of our outdoor activities are underlaid by a grassy substrate to cushion our bodies, catch our falls, and keep us out of the dirt.

The resurgence of green leaves of living plants in my yard reminds me of all the wonderful outdoor activities that await me in a new season of warmth and sun. It also injects hope for better days to come when the waves of infection move through and we try to tame a new virus in our midst.

But grass has its problems, too. Maintaining a yard full of grass—never mind a park, golf course, or athletic field—requires a lot of maintenance and chemicals. These come with costs: financial, environmental, and sociological. Grass just keeps on growing—unless it doesn’t get enough water, or is overrun with other species of plants (“weeds”). A botanist friend (thanks, Dana!) introduced me to the phrase “intercalary meristems.” Grass has these growing regions imbedded between other areas of mature tissue. So even when you chop off its tops—hello, lawn mower—grass regrows again and again. This is good for places we want to maintain grass as a lawn, but it means every week or two, we use energy—some sort of fuel, plus human time and effort—to shorten the plants. Then they grow again.

The structure of grass. The intercalary meristem for plant growth is hiding in the middle. Image credit: Kelvinsong / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)

If grasses stop growing and go dormant, we often add water to encourage new growth. Watering lawns, golf courses, etc. places a burden on our water infrastructure that has consequences for communities all over the world, especially where water availability is scarce. And in many places, grass growth—and the inhibition of weeds—is managed by the use of chemical fertilizers and herbicides that are part of a large industry dependent on fossil fuels and other energy costs. When it rains, or grass is watered by sprinklers, some of these chemicals run off into the water systems of our communities, flow into streams and rivers, and contribute to algal blooms and other undesirable consequences potentially far from our own homes and communities.

And about those weeds… In my neighborhood of mostly manicured lawns, the inevitable arrival of “unsightly” weeds such as dandelions, clover, and other infiltrators into the monoculture of bluegrass becomes a near battle against nature for many homeowners. We have started to expect that lawns be weed-free, and the easiest way to achieve it is to apply chemical herbicides to our yards. But all this effort may be missing a larger point: biodiversity and flowering plants of many varieties helps maintain healthy populations of insects, birds, and other residents of our neighborhoods and communities. Without these other residents, our own stability in the food chain may be at risk, along with survival of many species we take for granted.

The good news: Grass doesn’t have to be a monolithic vista everywhere to create appealing landscapes and provide for recreation and good times outdoors. We’ve learned a lot from studying natural grassland landscapes, such as prairies, which combine grasses with deep root systems and other plants that display resilient growth throughout the seasons and create wildlife habitat. In fact, rethinking the “American lawn” can be one step property owners can take toward creating healthier landscapes in our own communities. A quick internet search turns up no shortage of ideas for creating more sustainable lawns and landscapes that can reduce energy costs and create better habitat in the long run.

Last summer, I wrote about the humble coneflower and the place of native plants in my yard. I look out over my yard and its expanse of grass and feel some frustration with my limited efforts so far to turn it into something better—for my neighborhood’s aesthetics and for the environment. But that takes effort on many fronts that I’ve chosen so far to apply elsewhere, even though I know it’s important. And so I sit and watch the grass grow day by day, and try to think happy thoughts of outdoor activity past and future, and schedule a regular haircut for my yard—even as my own hair misses its overdue appointment with the person with the scissors who keeps it under control! Maybe one day, my yard will require less maintenance than it does at the moment. But I’m going to save that project for a post-pandemic day.

Be well and engage with others and nature as you can. Until the next time…

Restored prairie in Minnesota, last June. I love prairies and find inspiration in them for rethinking what grasses can be. My own photo ©Erin Gerecke

One thought on “Watching the grass grow—a pandemic spring at home

  1. Pingback: Hello, hostas: More moments from a pandemic spring at home | Mulled Science

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